SERRA TALHADA, Brazil — In a tiny hamlet in the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, Esdras Furtado Ferreira and his wife Francisca Lopes Furtado stood in their postage stamp of a front yard and looked across the plains.
A distant gray rain cloud crept across the horizon that afternoon in November, in the first sign of storm they had seen in weeks. The farming couple hoped it would come their way.
Their hamlet, Villa de Seringa, looked almost like a bomb had hit it. Shells of buildings rotted in the heat. Stray dogs scratched under abandoned cars. Only a handful of families remained.
Ferreira and Furtado lost most of their animals in the two-year-long drought that’s seared large swaths of Brazil’s northeastern region known as the Sertao.
Of the 40 cattle and sheep they once kept, 10 had died from hunger. They had sold 20 off cheaply, and now all their spare money was spent on food to keep their remaining herd alive.
But Ferreira and Furtado weren’t hungry.
Even as their animals died, the family received a steady flow of income in the form of monthly checks from the government under two welfare programs: the Bolsa Familia, or Family Allowance, and the Harvest Guarantee.
These social programs, greatly expanded under the presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, are drawing global acclaim for raising millions of Brazilians out of poverty.
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But in Brazil’s rural northeast, the programs have done more than just raise the standard of living: They’ve kept people from dying of hunger or thirst.
As recently as the 1990s, droughts in the northeast led to panic, looting and mass migrations, often accompanied by disease and deaths across the region.
This time, it’s been very different.
Subsistence farmers across the northeast tell the same story: The drought has cut deeply into their savings, their investments in animals and farmland, but it’s never cut into their dinner plates.
“When we had droughts before, people used to invade the markets and steal food,” said Fernando Nogueira, a local government engineer and hydrologist based in Serra Talhada. “That doesn’t happen any more because of these programs.”
Under Bolsa Familia, families get a set monthly welfare check of either about $13 per child or about $26 per child, depending on their income.
Parents must prove the children are being vaccinated and are attending school to be eligible for the program, which currently reaches more than 18 million families, according to Evaristo Eduardo de Miranda, a researcher and consultant who’s written extensively about Brazil’s welfare system.
Compared to the rest of Brazil, a far higher proportion of families in the northeast is eligible for the Bolsa Familia, de Miranda said.
And another government effort, called Bolsa Estiagem, or Drought Allowance, provides additional money for 880,000 people severely affected by the drought, he said. Farmers eligible for the Bolsa Estiagem (those who live in areas deemed to be under emergency conditions) receive about $33 a month extra in their monthly checks.
On the front lines of the drought, there’s no doubt this money offers a vital lifeline. Without it, Ferreira and Furtado said they would have left Villa de Seringa years ago.
With the monthly stipends, they can just about cling on, hoping for the rains to return to normal so they can plant a few crops and grow food for their animals.
“We’re just waiting for God to lift us up one day,” Ferreira said gloomily, scratching his bare belly.
While many credit the Bolsa Familia expansion with reducing extreme poverty, the program hasn’t been without its critics.
Conservative groups in Brazil have expressed concern that it leads to dependence on government welfare. A 2010 study conducted by the United Nations Development Program and the Brazilian government found a very small reduction in work incentives due to the program.
Hard-hit farmers in Sertao said they don’t have a choice whether to work or not. When it rains, there’s much more work to do, they said. When it’s dry, they either have to stay put and rely on the handouts or sell up and leave.
While the bolsa initiatives guarantee a minimum income for families, water delivery trucks known as “carro pipa” also keep drinking water flowing to rural communities.
Millions of families across the region have had large government-funded concrete or plastic water containers installed, which can hold enough water for a family for a month. The trucks, organized by a network of local, state and federal programs, fill the containers on a regular basis.
While there have been reports in the national press of corruption, in dozens of interviews over a week in the northeast, not one person complained of going without clean drinking water.
Families and local officials across the region do bemoan the lack of long-term investments that would bring permanent solutions to the frequent water shortage crises.
But there’s little doubt that Brazil has come a long way since the droughts that killed thousands and forced millions to relocate to the megacities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
For families like Ferreira and Furtado, the lack of rain no longer represents life or death. Rather, it represents economic repression.
With healthy rainfall, families can plant a few acres of crops and sell their excess produce in local markets. They can eat the food and animals they grow, tucking away their welfare checks for a day that’s not rainy.
But in a drought, the options shrink for the rural poor.
Asked how he will feel when the real rains come, Ferreira’s face flashed a stomach-leaping grin. Tears welled in his red eyes and his shoulders seemed lifted by invisible wings.
Hopping side to side with excitement, he said, “I’ll be as happy as a frog in a lake!”